Scott Siskind has an essay this week that I think makes an important point about our age. He takes off from the Effective Altruism movement, the people who try to calculate exactly how many lives are saved or how much suffering reduced by donations to this or that cause. (The winners are all medical charities working in very poor places doing simple things like deworming or malaria nets.)
You might think that people doing this kind of work would dislike being criticized over how they do it. But no; if you look at the EA Forum where insiders exchange messages, the top posts are all #criticism of EA.
At this point, reading an article like this one, you already know what the next “narrative beat” has to be. Despite Their Superficial Openness To Criticism, People In EA Are Only Willing To Engage With A Narrow Selection Of Critiques That Flatter Their Preconceptions, While Truly Threatening Criticisms Are Excluded From The Window Of Acceptable Discourse. People Who Are Able To Speak The Language Of Power And Criticize EA Legibly In Its Own Terms Get Flattered And Rewarded With Trivial Changes, While People Who Genuinely Challenge The Establishment Are Dismissed As Beyond The Pale Of “Respectable” Criticism And Ignored Or Punished.
But actually that is utterly wrong. The criticisms that get upvoted are the most fundamental, the most sweeping, the ones that say EA is based on utterly wrong premises (western, individualistic, racist, sexist, capitalist) and needs to be restructured from the ground up.
Siskind is a psychiatrist, and he notices the same thing in psychiatry:
Psychiatry has its own stock criticisms of itself. We rely too much on pills. We don’t get to know patients enough as individuals. We only treat the symptoms, not the real disease of [insert wild speculation]. We are probably systemically racist somehow, details to be filled in later. Something something Thomas Insel’s RDoC program. Non-psychiatrists in the popular media have stolen these criticisms and made them dumber, but we had them all first.
Siskind lists some papers from the 2019 meeting of the American Psychiatric Association: "Disrupting The Status Quo: Addressing Racism In Medical Education And Residency Training;" "Grabbing The Third Rail: Race And Racism In Clinical Documentation;" "The Pervasive Role Of Racial Bias In Mental Health;" "Inequity By Structural Design: Psychiatrists' Responsibility To Be Informed
Advocates For Systemic Education And Criminal Justice Reform." And so on.
But, says Siskind, none of these supposedly deep and fundamental criticisms ever draws a strong reaction. Everyone nods and says, yes, that's true, we need to fundamentally rethink our approach. "Your whole field is racist and wrong" sounds like a biting attack, but somehow it has no bite. If you want to get a reaction, says Siskind, ask a really specific question about actual treatment choices. Like, "why they prescribe s-ketamine instead of racemic ketamine for treatment-resistant depression."
I agree with this completely. In the museum world, radical critique is the daily bread and butter. The day doesn't really begin until someone launches the first attack on how racist, classist, neocolonialist, and exploitative the whole idea of museums is, to which everyone nods, agrees, and looks thoughtful for a minute before going about their business.
Most of the time, the more "fundamental" and "far-reaching" the criticism is, the less meaningful it is, and the less likely to lead to any kind of change.
I wrote here several times about the strange campus protests of 2016, in which students expressed a sort of generalized frustration with everything about the university that they often had trouble putting into words. Eveything was just bad, bad, bad. When they did write lists of grievances they were often strangely petty, the particulars not justifying the overall sense of anger and resentment.
I think this has become a terrible problem with our politics. The best example came in 2011, when we had raging fights in Congress, accompanied by accusations of communism and fascism and attempts to destroy America, over whether the top tax rate would be 35% or 38.5%. The constant resort to the fundamental, deep attack, the insistence that your enemies are wrong root and branch and need to becompletely wiped out, is poisoning everything. And for nothing, because the US economy is not going to be fundamentally changed.
The whole contemporary discourse about race is, I think, poisoned by this problem. Maybe it would be nice if we could eradicate racism root and branch and fundamentally change how Americans think about each other. But since we can't, why waste all our breath shouting about it and making everyone mad? Why not work on some concrete reforms of how police forces operate, how housing policy is set, and so on?
"America is a racist society that needs to be razed and rebuilt from the ground up" is a foolish, counterproductive thing to say. "Capitalism grinds up souls and needs to be destroyed so we can build a just society" is equally foolish and counterproductive. Better to argue for things like minimum wage laws and mandatory vacations that might actually happen.
Fundamental change is very rare in history, and it usually happens because of vast social forces that we can hardly understand, much less control. Your demanding it will not make it happen. Better to think of something good that we might actually achieve and spend your breath arguing for that.